NEW YORK _ Everyone wanted just one more

By Ken Rappoport Associated Press Published:

NEW YORK _ Everyone wanted just one more season. Everyone will get just one more game.

Wayne Gretzky announced his retirement from hockey Friday after two magnificent decades, despite pleas from family and friends not to go.

The 38-year-old Great One said his "gut" told him it was time. Left behind are scores of fans still asking for more and scores of records for generations to chase.

His last game, between his New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, will close a personally frustrating season _ and it will end an era.

"The last couple of weeks, a lot of people have been asking me why this is the time," a composed Gretzky said. "It's a gut feeling, something I believe is right."

His head told him, too.

"I started to feel fatigue _ mentally and physically _ that I never felt before."

"I hate the fact I have to retire," Gretzky said. "I have played for 35 years, since I was 3. Now I'm handing in my skates _ I'm done."

Although there were plenty of sad faces among the Rangers executives accompanying him at the Madison Square Garden news conference, Gretzky did not want this to be "a downer," _ and he kept his emotions in check.

"The emotional time will be Sunday when I take my skates off. I've been encouraging people to smile and be upbeat," he said. "That will be the tough time."

Gretzky sat with his wife, Janet, and two of their children _ Ty and Trevor. Gretzky said his daughter, Paulina, did not want to come "because she thought she'd cry too much."

Video highlights of Gretzky's career were shown before he made it official, and he and his wife watched in rapt attention. Janet cast admiring glances at her husband every once in a while.

Gretzky spent part of the day talking with Charles Dolan, the head of Cablevision, which owns the Rangers, and he tried to talk him into staying.

"We had a nice conversation," Gretzky said. "He extended a hand out to me to stay with the team. I told him I hadn't wavered at all. I'm very confident about that now."

No one could change Gretzky's mind. Not his wife, not the prime minister of his native Canada, not even his idol, Gordie Howe, who advised Gretzky to wait at least a few more months.

"He's going to leave a big void," Howe said from his home in Florida. "He's a proud man. And when you're hurting, it makes you think."

Gretzky's departure marks the second time in three months that one of the world's premier athletes _ and the best in his sport _ has chosen retirement. But unlike Michael Jordan, who left after winning his sixth NBA championship, Gretzky ends his career with a disappointing Rangers team that didn't even make the playoffs this season.

"Everybody wants to go out like Michael Jordan did, but it's not a perfect world. ... It's not going to happen that way, not this year, but it is nice to be able to say people do want me to play more," Gretzky had said.

On Friday he said he thought Jordan left too early and that he missed watching him play.

Jordan and now Gretzky's departure certainly has made 1999 a year for losing sports heroes. Then there's the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, who died last month at age 84.

Ultimately, Gretzky decided to leave sooner rather than later.

Classy and fair-haired with a charismatic smile, if Gretzky was a superstar in the United States, he was a virtual demigod in his home country.

Canadians have been aware of Gretzky since he was a peewee, and can recite such minutiae as the 104 goals he scored in 62 games at age 8, or the 378 goals in 82 games when he was all of 10.

With his magnificent skills and a humble, gentlemanly manner, Gretzky was a perfect goodwill ambassador for hockey. He has been the NHL's biggest box-office draw for most of his 20 years in the league, and never has been shy about that responsibility.

In 1,486 games with teams in Edmonton, Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York, Gretzky has 894 goals and 1,962 assists for 2,856 points _ that's 1,006 more than runner-up Howe scored in his Hall of Fame career.

He owns roughly 60 records, is a 10-time scoring champion and a nine-time MVP.

Such achievements can't be predicted, not even for a teen-ager who breaks into the World Hockey Association and has no trouble keeping up with the rugged men of that league. By his second pro season, Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were part of the NHL, which merged with the WHA in part to get their budding star into its ranks.

The high-scoring Oilers featured such future Hall of Famers as Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr, but they always were Gretzky's team. And they replaced the hallowed Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs as Canada's team in winning four Stanley Cups in a five-year span from 1984-88.

Then came the unthinkable: In his prime, Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, mainly as a cost-conscious move by Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, who later would be vilified in Canada.

But that 1988 deal brought a new challenge, and not surprisingly, Gretzky was up to it. Kings games became an "in" thing in LA. Hollywood's stars turned out to see Gretzky, and the Kings' newfound popularity eventually led to teams in hot-weather cities like Miami, Tampa, Fla., Anaheim and San Jose, Calif., Dallas, Phoenix and Nashville, Tenn.

After being traded to St. Louis in February 1996, Gretzky signed as a free agent with the Rangers that summer and remained the most recognizable and influential force in hockey. His third and final season in New York was one of the most discouraging for Gretzky, who missed 12 games due to a neck injury, while the Rangers missed the playoffs for the second straight year.

The 1998-99 season has included at least one important milestone for the NHL's leading career scorer. His ninth goal of the season gave him 1,072 as a professional, moving him past Howe.

He had played in 223 straight games since joining the Rangers. The injury was the second in Gretzky's career involving a disc. In 1992-93, he missed most of the season with a lower back injury before coming back to lead the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals.

Gretzky did not want a "farewell tour" next season with fans and teams showering him with accolades as he played his final games around the league. He did get a taste of it, though, as fans responded to Gretzky at various arenas as the season came to a close and the possibility he would retire loomed larger.

At what turned out to be Gretzky's final game in Canada, the 18,449 fans in Ottawa on Thursday night chanted "One more year!" during the third period.

When the game ended, the arena spotlight picked up Gretzky as he skated from the New York net to the boards in front of the Rangers' bench. As he leaned there smiling, all the Ottawa players skated over and one by one shook his hand. The Rangers, in a semicircle, tapped their sticks on the ice in a salute to the Senators.

Gretzky's wife was crying in the stands as her husband was announced as the game's only star, and the crowd roared again and didn't stop until he made two curtain calls.

Now, just one final bow remains.

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